Theatre talent quests: who wins?

It’s in its ninth year according to Short+Sweet’s website, but I hadn’t heard of this competitive festival of 10 minute plays until relatively recently.  Short+Sweet arrived in Brisbane this year, and played at Brisbane’s Powerhouse just prior to the start of the Brisbane Festival – a kind of outlier or ‘fringe up front’ to the main festival offerings.  Not knowing about Short+Sweet is my own fault, but it was not an event that had ever entered my radar.  I have to admit at the top that I am not all that keen about this kind of exercise.  Apart from anything else, I’m sufficiently old school to believe that theatre is a collaborative rather than competitive exercise, but then I’m not looking at it from its commercial potential.

I wanted to learn more about the concept behind Short+Sweet, especially since its vision – according to the website – seeks to provide professional development opportunities

to  up and coming theatre professionals to learn more about the craft of writing, directing and acting through the actual creation of new short theatre works and in so doing encourage and inspire talented young theatre practitioners to achieve higher levels of artistic quality in their work both for Short+Sweet Theatre and afterwards.

I know some of the artists and creatives who appeared in the Brisbane season; many of them are trained, working professionals.  Some are indeed ‘up and coming’ or perhaps ’emerging’ – hard to tell these days!  The performers among them would self-identify according to their MEAA classification as ‘freelance actors’ working across the continuum of professional and independent theatre in the city, receiving remuneration extending from award rates through stipend to the typical deferred payment model.

On the other hand many of the other entrants in Short+Sweet were amateur and community players, perhaps keen to break into the ranks of professional work themselves, or perhaps not; maybe there to learn, or for the fun of it.  Just for interest’s sake, the word ‘professional’ appears quite a lot on the website, but I couldn’t spot ‘amateur’ once.  The focus is clear; although essentially a talent quest, Short+Sweet is meant to be seen as a professional gig presenting ’10 minute theatrical gems’ to its audiences.  Short+Sweet is open to anyone who can pay the entrance fee, and who is prepared meet the project requirements.

My first reaction to all this was to wonder what on earth – apart from another showcase of their work, and the pure joy of doing what they love – would trained professional artists and creatives get from involvement in such an exercise?  The professionals aren’t paid despite the tag over the event, so what do they get?  I interviewed a couple who had taken part, and an audience member who had seen several of the productions.  They chose to remain anonymous; it’s a small world this theatre business.

“Not a great deal,” was one response to what they had got from the experience. “It was pretty painful being involved with non-professionals.  Quality control is a real issue.”  Another noted, “The standards ranged from the very, very bad to the sharp excellence of professionals.” Another thought that the ticket prices were high for the overall quality of the work. Winning in this situation couldn’t really mean much, could it?  All agreed that it didn’t, though they would have been worried had the professionals not done so.  All I spoke to noted that it added nothing of value to their resumés.

As to the other kind of remuneration – not the folding kind – the website indicates that workshops and masterclasses are offered and, if no salary, then there are at least prizes for the winners, and feedback from industry professionals – luminaries like ‘Sir Ian McKellen’ no less (he is named on the website).  I was told these gatherings were panels rather than workshops or masterclasses, and that local actors had been approached to serve on them.  Surely it would have been a good idea for the organisers of the event to put their panel of professional theatre consultants up on the website, and in advance.  As one of the competitors noted, “I have no wish to be given feedback by someone whose own work is either not known or recognised highly within the industry.”  Fair enough.

Now I’m sure there are a lot of plusses to the Short+Sweet concept, especially for amateur and community competitors. One of the participants noted that despite being 9 years on and having  “… lots of bugs, it does have potential.”  He just wasn’t sure yet what it might be.  For one actor I spoke to it was the chance to work with a good director on a good script.  For the writers it is an opportunity to get a new play rehearsed and in front of an audience, if for one or two nights only.  For a director, it’s an opportunity to learn more on the job about the business of direction.  To me though,  Short+Sweet feels like a cross between long-standing amateur theatre festival competitions and the television Idol franchises, where audiences as well as judges get to vote for their favourite performers.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s probably a lot of fun for the audience at least, but it’s out of place in the professional sector.  Ultimately you have to ask who really is benefitting from the exercise – and how events like Short+Sweet contribute to ‘higher levels of artistic quality’ in the work of individual artists, and ultimately to professional-standard theatre practice in the city?  As much as quality, the fundamental issue that deserves an airing concerns professionalism.

PS There are also song, dance and cabaret versions of Short+Sweet as well as a youth version called Fast+Fresh Theatre; as the website notes there is more to the ‘Short+Sweet Family’ than just the festival, which has now gone international to south-east Asia. Plans are afoot to take the festival to the UK, the US, and to NZ.  It’s a growing concern.

Author: Kate Wilson

Actor, director, teacher, dabbler with paint, serial traveller.

3 thoughts on “Theatre talent quests: who wins?”

  1. Thanks for this, Kate. I think this subject would greatly benefit from more open debate and discussion. It seems pretty clear to me that simply being involved in putting on a short play does not lead to higher levels of artistic quality. On the contrary, it leaves open the possibility for inexperienced, inexpert participants to come away with the idea that they are somehow more skilful and effective theatre makers than they actually are, simply because they took part.

    Of course experience of making theatre over time is a great learning exercise – it is how I got my ‘training’ – but one swallow does not make a summer (or some such cliche). And I had the benefit of working as a young, inexperienced actor with highly experienced directors and writers, learning my craft as an apprentice. When I was ’emerging’ my work was either moulded by masters, or presented honestly in the company of other unskilled, ambitious ’emerging artists’ as the experiment in making theatre that it was. This is a very different animal to what is considered to be ‘experimental theatre’.

    I, also, am curious as to what feedback the participants in Short + Sweet received, and how they were subsequently pointed in directions that would facilitate their further development.

    I would appreciate more accountability on the part of the organisers. Someone is making money out of this, why not admit it?

  2. Kate and Ffloyd now one could be more cynical than me as a 25 year career actor and yes my NIDA was Ambrosians and Arts where I directed my first festival play 25 years ago my second Short and Sweet 25 days ago and the professional development was outstanding and I am now aware that indeed the next generation of me’s exist and are more than ready to collaborate in the Artistic Future of this country
    The chance merely crossed my table
    a bit like this and am happy to debate the ???? at any time
    Regards Noel Sheridan

  3. Hi Noel,
    good to hear from you and to get your response. It’s always good to get a balanced view of these matters, so would be happy … not necessarily to ‘debate’ anything right now as the full picture remains to be coloured in … but to hear your side of things. Perhaps you’d oblige with more details of the outstanding professional development you mention that was part of Short+Sweet. Flloyd notes that she is curious as to the feedback given to the participants; you can see this above. I’m equally interested in the process, and as a long-serving trainer of young professionals to hear about the kinds of collaboration in the artistic future of the country that this terrific new generation of arts workers is already working at. Cheers.

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